Black Life In White Pittsburgh: America Under a Microscope

Portrait of African American senior man.
Source: Beto Hacker / Getty

My father worked as a hospital housekeeper for more than 25 years. Every day at 4:15 pm, he’d walk to the bottom of our steep Steel City hill and wait for the city bus to drop him 4 miles down the road. From there, he’d walk a little under a mile to Allegheny General Hospital where he’d mop, sweep, empty trash and dust until 2:30 am. After his shift ended he’d walk to a local cab station and catch a jitney ride back home, there he’d reheat dinner, eat and shower, and then head down to the basement for his morning prayer.

Day after day, rain or snow, my father, the college graduate, the experienced soil mechanical engineer, threw on his blue on blue uniform, raised his head and reported to the office of his white male supervisor, a 20-something high school graduate supervisor. It was a far cry from his life back home in Nigeria. Before I was old enough to understand discrimination or racism or segregation, I knew there was something strange about my father’s 20-year job search. I knew that a man with advanced certificates and degrees from universities on three different continents and a curriculum vitae decorated with 15 years of experience had no business buffing brass. But as a Black African man living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a place commonly referred to as “The Mississippi of the North,” the ceiling was much shorter for my father, and it turns out that was by design. On Tuesday, September 17th, 2019, the release of a 95-page report compiled by a team of researchers in conjunction with Pittsburgh Mayor, Bill Peduto, and the Gender Equity Commission confirmed what I’d known my whole life. That my father would’ve been better off taking his family just about anywhere else, literally.

OVERQUALIFIED

I spent the majority of my childhood wishing my family would move to Maryland. Based on the findings of some in depth Ask Jeeve’s analysis, Maryland was where all the engineering jobs were. And if we could just get to where the better jobs were, we wouldn’t have to be so poor any more. What my Ask Jeeves analysis didn’t reveal to me was that Pittsburgh had plenty of engineering jobs, well paying ones at that, only these jobs were reserved for Pittsburgh’s white residents, preferably the white males, but certainly not the ones who looked like my father.

Occupational segregation is a social and systemic phenomenon where one group is more likely to hold a certain type of job than another group based on demographic characteristics and factors. We often hear gender centered as the primarily demographic characteristic impacting segregation within the workforce, but a closer look reveals that race is just as polarizing, if not moreso, especially in a city like Pittsburgh. According to page 34 of “Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race” report, Black residents were more likely to fill occupations with a median income less than $30,000, occupations like Personal Care Worker, Custodian and Health Care Support. In contrast, white male residents disproportionately occupied positions like Engineer, Lawyer, Computer Programmer, Doctor, etc., ie. positions with a median income above $50,000.

The report also indicated that the Black male workforce had a more concentrated presence in these low wage labor jobs than Black male populations in 99% of comparable city’s. And Black female residents, while sharing more gendered occupations with White female residents like Office Administrator and Health Care Support, experienced additional segregation based on their race, evidenced by a more concentrated presence in low wage, labor jobs like Factory Worker and Maintenance, regardless of education and/or experience. Which puts the gross majority of Black men and Black women in the city of Pittsburgh right on or just below the poverty line, where does that put Black children?

PICTURE PERFECT POVERTY

When systems are put in place to restrict the progression of an otherwise progressive adult people, the effects are undoubtedly felt by the adults, but the impact can also be seen in the children. Pittsburgh is proof positive of that. Black boys are six times more likely than white boys to live in poverty in Pittsburgh, while Black girls are four times more likely than their white female counterparts to do the same. As the report states it, “More Black children in Pittsburgh grow up in poverty than 95 percent of similar cities,” which should surprise no one given the state of Black adults in the city. More than 40% of Black women and 30% of Black men in Pittsburgh live below the poverty line, how could Black children be doing any better?

Pittsburgh’s Black youth are what happen when a city calculates the collapse of some of its own and the children are forced to survive in the rubble, destined to plant roots in the same emaciated earth that stunted their parents. I grew up in poverty because I was born in a city that willed it so, not because my parents neglected to prepare for adult life or failed to plan for any unforeseeable hardships. They were simply born into a hardship they couldn’t plan their way around, their race. It’s systemic oppression on steroids and not just because of the very obvious way the oppression of Black Pittsburgh residents is built into the systems that support the city, but also because of the way it creates a psychological vacuum through the trauma of poverty for Black youth that makes the perpetual struggle almost impossible to escape.

WELL PLANNED FAILURE

Poverty generally refers to the state of being poor. While we’ve attached measurements to gauge just how poor poor really is, the overarching idea behind the word implies an inability to meet one’s basic needs. There are social, economic and political factors to poverty, and poverty can range from working poverty to absolute poverty. Overall, though, poverty is associated with most of the social chaos we, as a society, witness on a daily basis.

When children, in particular, are subjected to life under impoverished conditions, there are both short term and long-term ramifications. And because children who grow up poor are more likely to grow up in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty, they fall victim to the many additional negative effects this has on them, their families and their home environments. For example, high poverty neighborhoods have higher incidences of violent crime, and exposure to violent crime has been shown to have damaging effects on social, academic and mental development. This would explain the propensity for children raised in high poverty areas to underperform in academic settings, like I did, which researchers attribute to general feelings of anxiety and a lowered sense of safety and self-wellness. When children don’t feel safe or when school hours only table the turmoil they experience on a day to day basis, focusing on social studies might not sound like a realistic goal. Not to mention children raised in high poverty neighborhoods are often witnesses to the crimes that take place in their communities, resulting in poor emotional and mental health which often goes unaddressed. As the gaps between poor children and their peers widen and challenges become more evident, and studies say these challenges persist well into adulthood, it becomes more evident just how damning the the effects of orchestrated chaos can be on just one community, imagine under the same pretense how much damage can be done to an entire population.

When the systems you need to navigate for your success are rigged for your failure, it doesn’t matter how closely you adhere to the requirements set, it’ll simply never be enough. My father juggled with the idea of going back to college for quite a while, never fully grasping the concept that there truly was nothing he could do within the confines of his beloved Allegheny county to make himself more desirable. Pittsburgh had always been livable for the people it actually wanted living there, my father was never one of those people, neither would I grow to be, causing me to abandon my beloved hometown some years ago. Still, Pittsburgh, in all of its accolades, is just a fragment of this country’s double-sided fabric. Pittsburgh is just one of many cities in this country that has intentionally relegated its Black population to a tertiary subclass, and after decades and decades of outcry and accusation, the same system that supported these strategies expects praise for finally acknowledging their impact without taking responsibility for their existence. If that ain’t America under a microscope, I don’t know what is.

The Steel City is a demonstration for the nation, a TED-Talk just waiting to happen. A shining example of what a city becomes when it prioritizes the progress of its most privileged above the livelihoods of everyone else; we can only guess what’s to become of an entire country that would have the audacity to do the same. Nice of my hometown to finally acknowledge its ongoing ordeal but let’s not pretend these oppressive practices stopped the minute this report was released. And furthermore, where is the restoration for the Black residents of Pittsburgh whose only wrongdoing was settling in a city that refused to see them as deserving of a descent livelihood to begin with, so much so that it would deny them that very right with zero consideration for the costs. I owe my hometown nothing, nor do I care to recoup all that it’s intentionally taken from me. As a child, you’re taught to invest back into the things that presumably invested in you, things like your hometown and your beloved country. But as an adult you learn not everything is worth the investment.

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